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Syria: Christian Refugees

Volume 764: debated on Wednesday 9 September 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to prioritise Christian refugees from Syria in their plans to resettle further refugees in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the Prime Minister has already announced that over the course of this Parliament the United Kingdom will resettle up to 20,000 more Syrian refugees. The expanded programme will prioritise the most vulnerable refugees, particularly children and women at risk of abuse. It will not distinguish on the basis of religion.

My Lords, I am grateful for that Answer from the Minister. Is he aware of an article in the Sunday press by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey of Clifton? He reported that Christians have been targeted by ISIL for crucifixion, beheading and rape. Even now, they are not to be found in the UN camps because they have been attacked by Islamists and have had to find refuge in private houses and churches. Will the Government now assure this House that they fully understand the plight of Syrian Christians and that they realise that they are not in the camps for the reason I have given? If they reach an agreement with the UNHCR that does not take account of that fact, they are discriminating against Christians, who have suffered from these events at least as much as anybody else. It can be done; it is a question of the small print. Let it be done.

I assure the noble Lord that the Government take all persecution against any minority very seriously. In his consideration, he mentioned the Christians; and we have seen the appalling scenes against the Yazidis. All minorities who are suffering such persecution at the hands of this hideous ISIL entity will be dealt with in the proper way, by ensuring that their vulnerabilities are protected and they are given the protection they deserve.

Does the noble Lord agree that Muslim countries, the Gulf states and particularly Saudi Arabia, which are oil rich, should be taking their share of refugees from Syria—on the basis not of religious apartheid but of vulnerability, need and genuine fear of war and persecution?

I totally agree with the noble Baroness. Let us put it into context: every religion of the world, at its inception and in its fundamentals, talks about non-discrimination. The countries around that region should put their faith into practice.

My Lords, the work of the Weidenfeld Safe Havens Fund focuses on these ancient Christian communities that are under direct threat from ISIS and hide in fear of death and martyrdom, and for whom no special ultimate home has been found. Does the Minister not agree that this is not a question of discrimination? Threatened Muslims in the area have financial resources available in the Arab world, and are able to move more freely than Christians to find freedom. Following the Lord Privy Seal’s answer to your Lordships’ House on Monday to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, when is the Prime Minister planning to discuss with the UNHCR the plight of the Christians who are forced to flee and are not even allowed in the camps?

I assure my noble friend that the plight of Christians and, as I said, Yazidis and all minorities, is not going to be discussed but is being discussed to ensure that they get the protection they deserve, and that resources are made available to them. That is why the Government are looking quite specifically at ensuring that the refugees who are granted settlement in the UK are very much those currently in the areas surrounding Syria and Iraq, because they perhaps are the most deserving in terms of their security needs.

My Lords, it is not necessary for the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, to sit down because it is the turn of the Labour Benches.

My Lords, people of many faiths and none have sought refuge from oppression not only in Syria but elsewhere. Accordingly, are they not entitled to expect to be regarded in a much more benign and civilised way than this Government have exhibited so far?

As I said yesterday from this Dispatch Box, and as my noble friend the Leader of the House said, this country has a history of showing mercy and tolerance. Also underlying our policy is showing humanity towards any persecuted minority or people across the world. We continue to do so, and that applies no differently when dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis.

My Lords, the House is calling for my noble friend Lady Berridge. I suggest that we hear from her, and if we are brief we can get to the noble Lord.

My Lords, while no one can theologically or legally defend prioritising people on the grounds of their faith alone, can the Minister confirm that, just as giving Ugandan Asians refuge here was not prioritising people on the grounds of their race, where there is evidence of persecution on the grounds of faith or belief, membership of those communities should be a relevant criterion used by the UN and the UK in assessing those in greatest need?

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a large number of Syrians—Christian and others—are fleeing from the atrocities of ISIL but deciding to remain in Syria? I am told that it is estimated that the population of Damascus has increased by 100% in the past two years.

The Government are aware of that, and that is why I should say to the noble Lord that part of the £1 billion that they have allocated is helping those refugees who are directly displaced within the borders of Syria itself.